Three years ago, David St. John of Conway finished second in the World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest at Stuttgart, placing behind a good friend, Brad Allen of Judsonia.
Two years ago, St. John and Allen would again vie for the title, having to compete in three overtime call-offs and again St. John fell a little short.
“I ended up having a little bobble in that last call-off,” St. John said of his second runner-up finish.
But last fall, St. John’s 90-second routine played out perfectly.
“I told myself that I was just going to go out and do exactly what I had done. All you can do is really turn it over to the judges and, hopefully, they are in your corner,” he said. “If I did anything I wanted to show a little more power, trying to blow from the heart and be mistake-free and not be tentative. A lot of the judges can tell when you are backing off and trying to not make a mistake.”
This time, St. John had an ace up his sleeve.
“The triple comeback is the strongest part of my routine,” he said. “It is three hail calls in a row without taking a breath. I try to show a lot of power with that, having enough air to make it last and leave an impression that this guy is really pounding the call and giving it all he’s got.”
After 15 years of competitive duck-calling, St. John was the world champion.
“It was an awesome feeling, something I’d been going for for 15 years,” he said. “To say the least, it was surreal. I was very ecstatic about it.”
The 45-year-old began his lifelong pursuit of ducks along fish farm ponds near Lonoke. He explained that his grandfather tended the ponds, and he would take St. John, then about 8, to the ponds on weekends, with only one piece of direction: “If you see a duck, shoot it.”
St. John would nestle along the bank, and his grandfather would return periodically to check on him. His first call was an antique his grandfather gave him.
In those days, St. John would find ducks in the area and listen to them so he could then mimic what he heard.
It wasn’t until much later in life that competitive duck-calling came into the picture. At the Wings Over The Prairie festival, St. John bumped into a high school friend, who ultimately encouraged him to try the contest. The friend worked for Rick Dunn of Echo Duck Calls in Beebe, and soon St. John was attending practice nights at Dunn’s shop. His first competition was in 2000.
Quickly, St. John rose through the ranks, finishing in the top 10 in the world regularly and the top 5 several times in the 2000s.
Trying to woo judges is different than convincing ducks to settle among your decoys.
“It’s different but the same,” St. John said. “When you are calling ducks, you are blowing hail calls when the ducks are at a long distance. If you’ve got more than one guy who can blow a duck call, more than one is better — two guys trying to sound like more ducks. Once you get their attention, you come off and not be quite as loud. In a competition, you are trying to be loud.”
Not only is the pitch and power of the calling routine different, the actual calls are, too. A competition duck call, St. John explained, is bored out more than a normal call, allowing more air to go through the call and more air pressure to build up.
“A competition call is on a higher scale. It is pretty much like playing a musical instrument,” St. John said. “There is a lot of air pressure. The calls are louder. We call them a ‘boss’ call.
“What you are trying to do is get, tone-wise, a clean tone on the top end of the scale. You have to really concentrate on the cleanness of the tone. You don’t want a buzzy, raspy sound to it on the top ends. On the bottom end, the transitions, those are going to sound more like a real duck than your top ends.”
But it isn’t advisable to try to repeat a competitive caller’s routine while in a duck blind.
“You are mimicking the same thing you are going to do out in the field, but you are blowing extremely loud; as much as you can push the call,” St. John said. “What you are doing on that stage wouldn’t work in the field. The difference in duck hunting and competition calling is that you actually have an opportunity to read the ducks in the field, what they are wanting to hear. On stage, you have a set routine.”
St. John said that since his victory, he has been contacted by numerous groups wanting him to present seminars on duck calling. He now works with Dunn at Echo, focusing on sales. He couldn’t be prouder of his championship.
“It’s put me amongst a bunch of elite duck callers who have been there several years before me. It’s fun being there like that,” he said.